Kremlin-controlled TV channel NTV accuses Joe Biden of covering up the Saakashvili family’s “role” in the global human organ trade
As the 2020 United States presidential election comes closer, the Kremlin media targeted candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden by incorporating his name into a preexisting disinformation campaign focused on a former president of Georgia.
From May 21 to May 23, 2019, Russian state-controlled TV channel “НТВ” (NTV) released a three part “documentary” about Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, accusing him — among other things — of being controlled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, blackmailing Ukrainian ex-President Poroshenko, and engaging in the human organ trade. At first glance, there was nothing new in the Kremlin media’s reports, with the exception of one detail: NTV claimed that Biden played a role in covering up the Saakashvili family’s alleged role in the organ trade.
By introducing Biden, who entered the race for the 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential nomination at the end of April 2019, into an old disinformation narrative about “Saakashvili’s crimes,” NTV likely aimed to damage his reputation ahead of the U.S. elections. Before announcing his candidacy, Biden had warned of the efforts of foreign countries — particularly Russia — to meddle in upcoming U.S. elections, as well as of the threats influence and disinformation operations pose to the democratic process.
Saakashvili and Putin: A History of Tension
Mikheil Saakashvili came to power after the 2003 “Rose Revolution,” a peaceful series of protests in Georgia that were followed by regime change and marked the beginning of Georgia’s pro-Western pivot. During Saakashvili’s presidency, Russia invaded Georgia and fought a brief war in 2008.
Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin have a long track-record of insulting statements toward each other: Saakashvili once referred to Putin as “Liliputin,” a reference to the little people in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Putin once threatened to hang Saakashvili “by the balls.” The tense personal relationship between the two leaders, as well as the Kremlin’s aggression toward Georgia, has repeatedly made Saakashvili a target of Russian state-controlled media.
Lies, Damned Lies, and the Kremlin Media
The conspiracy that the Saakashvili family had engaged in the illicit organ trade are not new. According to the Media Development Foundation, a Georgian media literacy nonprofit, a media portal called Exclusive News published a fabricated video in 2016 allegedly released by the head of the State Security Service of Ukraine. The video purportedly told a story how Mikheil Saakashvili’s wife traded the organs of wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
The video uploaded by the user інформаційний портал СЛОВО (Ukrainian: Information Portal “Word”) has 351 subscribers and only seven videos on its channel — all of them related to Ukrainian politics. The video shows an unidentified person sitting with their back to the camera and telling a 10-minute story of how the organs were removed from Ukrainian soldiers and then traded, and how Saakashvili family led the business. The claims, however, were not supported by any actual evidence, as it was merely a story told by an anonymous person.
NTV revived the story for its recent “documentary” series, the first part of which primarily focused on the family’s alleged role in the organ trading business. Despite this particular disinformation narrative featuring in Kremlin-controlled outlets’ reporting for the past three years, the documentary constituted the first time the narrative included former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, accusing him of covering up the Saakashvili family’s “organs business.”
NTV is owned by Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of Russian energy company Gazprom, which itself evolved from the Soviet Ministry of Gas into a private corporation and is now a Russian state-owned company. As a result, the Russian government is able to exert de facto control of NTV via Gazprom’s media subsidiary. In 2018, Gazprom doubled its annual net profit by achieving record sales to Europe.
The three-part documentary, titled Saakashvili. The Battle for Ukraine,” belongs to a series titled “Based On a True Story.” The series describes itself as “exclusive footage obtained by the NTV team, as well as scenes that have never been published before.”
The program, however, is not based on evidence, but rather, on interviews with so-called “experts in the field” with unverified credentials, including some who remain completely anonymous with their backs to the camera. The tactic of employing fake experts is not a novel one for Kremlin-controlled TV channels. In addition, the EU’s East StratCom Task Force has previously identified the NTV channel in particular as a wellspring for disinformation narratives.
NTV’s introduction to the first part of the Saakashvili “documentary” began with a sensationalist line of questioning: “How did [Saakashvili’s] wife supervise the trade in organs of wounded Ukrainians?” “Why did Joe Biden cover up these crimes?” “What did Saakashvili blackmail Poroshenko with?” “Why did Poroshenko not give away the runaway Saakashvili to Georgia?” The same questions appeared in the program description under the video on YouTube.
Interestingly, despite making claims about Biden’s role, the documentary footage did not feature him; it merely flashed his image for two seconds and asked the audience to stay tuned for his role in the Saakashvili family’s criminal enterprise, implying a future exposé on the topic that has yet to materialize. The DFRLab did not find previous NTV programming to have made unsubstantiated allegations regarding Biden.
Spread of the Narrative
NTV’s YouTube channel has 5.5 million subscribers, but engagement with the video was relatively low: it garnered 12,917 views and 91 comments, some of which were negative comments about Saakashvili; roughly half of the comments, however, emphasized the inauthenticity of the video and deemed it Kremlin propaganda.
Using the online analytics tool Sysomos, the DFRLab scanned for mentions of the words “Джо Байден” (“Joe Biden”) together with “органами” (which translates to “with organs,” in a Russian grammatical case) on online platforms in both English and Russian between May 23 and May 29, 2019 — from the day the narrative appeared to the day this analysis was written. Sysomos registered only 14 mentions of both terms together in Russian across all platforms.
Sysomos registered only 22 mentions of the words “Joe Biden” and “organs” in English across all platforms within the period of analysis.
The Sysomos results suggested that the spread of the narrative across Russian and English online platforms was very low. The scan, however, only registered observations from the surveyed week.
Kremlin-controlled media have routinely discredited the Kremlin’s opponents by using sensational headlines and recycling false narratives. In particular, the narrative that Saakashvili’s family engaged in the illegal organ trade has circulated in Kremlin-controlled media for several years. Introducing Biden into the existing narrative now, early in the former vice president’s 2020 presidential run, may indicate that the Kremlin media — similar to the U.S. media — sees Biden as the current front-runner in the race and therefore is seeking to diminish his standing through a disinformation campaign.
The DFRLab will continue to monitor the spread of this particular Kremlin disinformation narrative regarding Biden.
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Georgia.
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